Writing on photography

Review – Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson

“When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on their memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly― Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Unlike so many other great European capitals, London has defied all attempts to order or plan it. The travel writer H.V Morton described it as a series of villages submerged by bricks and mortar as the city overgrew its Roman walls and spread out into the green fields of the surrounding counties. From the narrow medieval lanes of the City, to the anachronistic names of its further flung quarters, the London we know today was only made possible by this slow and disordered growth, which absorbed and amalgamated rather than destroyed it’s past.

Equally important though to the city’s present character though have been brief periods of immense destruction. The Great Fire of 1666 swept away two thirds of the city, only stopping when it reached the ancient walls. But it left the ancient street plan in place but offering space and light for new buildings to grow like seedlings in the wake of a forest fire. The air bombardment unleashed on London from 1940, had a similar effect, wiping clear great swathes of inner London and pockmarking it’s outskirts with random destruction. Many of those erratically distributed bomb sites would later become the site of the new post-war social housing, resulting in a city where people of all social and economic tiers often live in a jumbled proximity which is sometimes surprising to visitors.

Despite the comprehensive rebuilding of the city in the years after the war traces of many of these bomb sites remain in the city, for anyone who is willing and knows how to look for them. Thom and Beth Atkinson do know how, and their first book Missing Buildings consists of a collection of photographs of these strange gaps in the spatial fabric of the city. Like psychic scars, these empty spaces with their precarious hovering fireplaces and pale outlines of long vanished roof-lines are a lingering reminder of the indiscriminate destruction that rained on the city during the Second World War, and the speed with which the order and fabric of urban life can be shattered be conflict.

The photographs are straight and typological, each site photographed in the grey light of an overcast London day, often at a forty-five degree angle which displays both the frontages of the intact surrounding buildings and the markings left on their sides by the missing building. In some cases the missing has been replaced, with varying success, and so post-war prefabs and sixties brick builds appear incongruously inserted amongst rows of Victorian terraced houses. The surviving neighbours of some of these missing buildings often look as if they are not long for this world themselves. Wapping’s Old Rose pub stands like an isolated Victorian promontory in a sea of wasteland. It’s windows are boarded up, and it looks rather as if it is waiting for the bomb which will at last arrive seventy years late, to send it to join the buildings that once surrounded it.

This could be a case of me projecting my own interests and concerns too forcefully, but I find it hard not to view this book as a commentary on the process of demolition and reconstruction which is sweeping across London today. As the value of property has soared and even the most meagre scraps of land are acquired for ‘redevelopment’ the sights and sites shown in this book become fewer and further between as they are pulled down, sealed up or built over. ‘So what’ one might well say, these derelicts and empty spaces offer the city no quantifiable or easily defined benefit to the city. But as the Roth quote above implies, some things of importance are beyond measurement. These missing buildings are the memento mori of the city. They are a reminder to us all that while order is illusory, life is short, and our own time will come, the city does not readily forget it’s own.

(Critical transparency: review copy provided by publisher)

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography